Celebrating America’s Immigrant Heritage: The Ellis Island Medal of Honor

Davar Ardalan
4 min readMay 4, 2024


Ten years ago, on May 10, 2014, I was deeply honored to receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, surrounded by the historic walls of Ellis Island’s Great Hall — where my grandfather, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, first stepped onto U.S. soil in October 1919.

The Ellis Island Medal of Honor serves as a reminder of how much we can achieve when we embrace and support each other’s dreams.

On May 18, 2024, the historic walls of Ellis Island’s Great Hall will once again echo with the stories of remarkable individuals as we celebrate the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. This prestigious ceremony honors those whose contributions reflect the enduring spirit and promise of America, a nation built on the diverse strengths of its people. See list of recipients here.

The 2024 medalists represent a diverse array of leaders and innovators across various sectors. Harvey Mason, Jr., CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and Whoopi Goldberg, an entertainment legend, are recognized for their significant contributions to the arts. Chris Anderson, CEO and President of TED Talks is also a medalist.

Looking back ten years to May 10, 2014, I experienced one of the proudest moments of my life in the same location, receiving the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. This accolade not only recognized my professional achievements in public media at NPR but also connected me to my family’s storied past.

My grandparents, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar and Helen Jeffreys on their wedding day in New York City 1927.

It was on this island that my grandfather, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, first set foot on American soil in October 1919. His journey from an immigrant with dreams to a respected physician, who later married my grandmother Helen in New York City, is a testament to the resilience and dedication that define so many immigrant stories.

My own nomination, championed by the late Dr. Firouz Naderi of NASA, acknowledged the depth of my work as a journalist in public media — a role that allows me to share and celebrate the multitude of voices that make up our nation’s narrative.

Dr. Nasser Kazeminy, Chairman of the Ellis Island Honors Society (center of photo) surrounded by 2017 Ellis Island Award medalists.

The Ellis Island Medal of Honor ceremony serves as a powerful reminder of the contributions immigrants have made and continue to make to America. The ceremony was a vibrant testament to the vision of Dr. Nasser Kazeminy, Chairman of the Ellis Island Honors Society, who has been instrumental in steering this recognition towards acknowledging the breadth of contributions made by immigrants from presidents like Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden to leaders in business and culture such as John Sculley and Indra Nooyi.

Among this year’s honorees are figures like Rear Admiral Kavon ‘Hak’ Hakimzadeh of the U.S. Navy, and NASA Astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli, symbolizing the pinnacle of achievement in science and space exploration. Entrepreneurs like Craig Newmark and Faraj Alaei as well as educational and financial leaders such as Abbas Milani and Faraj Saghri, exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual vitality that immigrant communities bring to the United States.

2017 Medalists Dr. Abbas Ardehali and Mohammad Farzaneh together with Iran Davar Ardalan.

These honorees not only embody professional success but also demonstrate the dynamic contributions of immigrants to the fabric of American society. Their stories are powerful reminders of how immigrants from various disciplines continue to enrich our nation.

My husband John Oliver Smith and I return to Ellis Island Medal of Honor Ceremonies in 2017.

In 2017, my husband John Oliver Smith and I returned to Ellis Island for the Medal of Honor Ceremonies, a profound reaffirmation of the strength that comes from our diversity. Ellis Island, once the gateway for millions seeking new beginnings, continues to symbolize the hope and opportunity that define the American experience.

As Chairman Kazeminy aptly stated, ‘America has unleashed the energy and unique genius of its citizens,’ an ethos that resonates as strongly today as it did in my grandfather’s time.

Our family members together with my late Mom, Laleh Bakhtiar, as we marked the 100th anniversary of her father Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar’s arrival to America.

In 2019, a special family gathering deepened this sentiment when twenty members of our family, including my late mother, journeyed to Ellis Island to celebrate the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival in America.

This visit was not just a familial reunion but also a tribute to his enduring legacy and significant contributions to Harlem Hospital. There, on the grounds where he first set foot with dreams of a better life, we connected deeply with his spirit of perseverance and hope.

Our visit to Ellis Island with my late mother Laleh Bakhtiar and siblings Mani Ardalan Farhadi and Karim Ardalan, was a poignant reminder that our achievements are not just our own but are built on the foundations laid by those who came before us.

As we prepare for this year’s celebration, we are reminded of the incredible potential we have when we support and uplift each other’s aspirations. The Ellis Island Medal of Honor not only commemorates the past but also inspires us to build a more inclusive and prosperous future.



Davar Ardalan

Founder TulipAI. National Geographic, NPR News, SecondMuse, White House PIF Alum.